There is a Russian proverb to the effect that you learn as long as you live.
Daniel Rosenthal, an emeritus professor of engineering at UCLA, prefers to put that in reverse: "You live as long as you learn."
At 86, with more mental and physical enthusiasm than many half his age, Rosenthal still teaches a weekly class, this one a free course for older people titled "Your Brain: Use It or Lose It."
He is the oldest teacher in the Santa Monica College Emeritus College program, which offers courses for seniors--in everything from "Assertiveness Training" to "Creative Art of the Right Brain"--at 40 locations in the city.
"His popularity has grown over the years to the point that his class is increasingly in demand," said Maggie Hall, director of the Emeritus College program.
Rosenthal's students--including a retired department store manager, bank vice president, high school teachers, pharmacist, patent attorney and a child development psychologist--gather once a week in a meeting room at First Christian Church of Santa Monica to chew over such topics as: "Computer: Friend or Foe?," "Why Can We Send a Man to the Moon but Can't Solve Earthly Problems?," and "The East and West in Science."
Decade of Involvement
"One reason we do this every Monday is to meet other people who don't want to just sit in a corner at home and wait to die," explained 77-year-old Samuel Pinkowitz, a former vice president of Chase Manhattan Bank and one of about two dozen in Rosenthal's class. "If you sit on your tail at home, what are you supposed to do, watch TV all day?"
Rosenthal said he has been leading these groups for about 10 years now. "As I grew older, I never gave much thought to how much longer I would last. But of one thing I was certain: If I allowed my brain to become fallow, I would become a vegetable."
A lifetime of learning and teaching dictated otherwise. Born in Poland, Rosenthal earned a doctorate in engineering from the University of Brussels, and taught there a short time before fleeing the Nazis with his late wife, Anne, to France and Morocco and Portugal and finally the United States.
After teaching four years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he joined the engineering faculty at UCLA shortly after that university founded its school for the subject, and stayed 21 years until retiring in 1967.
For a while, he participated in a team project at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont called "Humanities in Engineering."
Materials for Lectures
"We studied the fact that as long as engineers don't understand human nature, they can't understand what kinds of needs an engineer should fulfill in life." He and others on the team subsequently used their conclusions as material for lectures on the subject to freshmen engineering students.
As an emeritus professor of engineering at UCLA, he still has an office on the Westwood campus, a setting that he calls his "mine" for extracting precious ideas for the seniors' class.
"Every now and then about 10 of us, all retired professors, meet for lunch in the faculty center," he said. "We have physicians, biologists, astronomers, psychologists. It's nothing formal. We just bring up subjects, and see what everybody has to say. A lot of what comes out of it provides material for my lectures."
At those lectures, the jockey-sized speaker, his mane as white as snow, hammers away again and again at the same enthusiastic message: Time given to thought is time well spent.
Rosenthal's class is held during daylight hours, as is true of all of the more than 100 such sessions now offered through the Santa Monica College Emeritus College program, since older students prefer day classes. More than 6,000 now attend the local Emeritus College courses, according to Hall.
In Rosenthal's class, some of the discussion gets pretty cerebral, but usually, sooner or later, comes back to the practical considerations of getting on in years.
'Don't Become a Vegetarian'
For example, from a class titled "To Diet or Not to Diet": "I tell my students not to diet," said Rosenthal, who admittedly has no formal training in nutrition. "Eat foods in the correct proportions, and you will get all the vitamins you'll ever need, without any pills.
"But don't become a vegetarian. You need a little more than that. And it doesn't hurt if you have an occasional glass of wine."
On the perennial subject of failing memory: "Don't rely on drugs that are supposed to refresh the memory," he tells his students. "Exercise the brain with repetition. Keep repeating information to yourself. For any kind of names, use association. For instance, my street name begins with 'bar,' and that is how I remember it."
Over the years, most of Rosenthal's students have been in their 70s, although occasionally, such as now, the assemblage includes someone older than the instructor.